Relatives of Patz suspect react to his arrest

In this courtroom drawing, Pedro Hernandez, second right, is arraigned at Manhattan Criminal Court before Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr., via closed circuit television from Bellevue Hospital in New York, Friday, May 25, 2012. Hernandez, who worked in a local convenience store at the time, is charged with murdering 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979. In the lower left corner of the monitor is Hernandez's attorney, Harvey Fishbein. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams)

May 26, 2012 8:14:04 PM PDT
When police dug up a Manhattan basement last month in a fruitless search for the remains of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy who disappeared in 1979, Lucy Suarez saw the news on TV and wished that the family of the missing child would finally get some peace.

"My sister and I prayed about it. We prayed and we said, 'Let justice be done,'" Suarez said. "Never did we think it was going to be done with our family."

On Friday, her older brother was charged with Etan's murder.

Police said Pedro Hernandez, a 51-year-old, churchgoing father described by some friends as quiet and timid, had given an emotional confession earlier in the week to luring the little boy away from his school bus stop with a promise of a soft drink, and then strangling him in the basement of a convenience store where he had been working as a stock clerk.

The admission surprised investigators, who had been confounded by the disappearance for three decades and never considered Hernandez a suspect until this month. Just weeks ago, they had focused their attention on another man, and even ripped up a basement he had once used as a workshop in the hope of finding clues.

Suarez said her family is reeling, too, despite having had concerns for years that her brother had once done something bad to a child.

Hernandez, now living in Maple Shade, N.J., was 18 when Etan vanished. When he moved to New Jersey not long after the disappearance, he said something to relatives about having hurt a child back in New York.

Suarez said her brother never spoke to her directly about what had happened, and the family's knowledge of the incident was vague.

"He didn't say, 'I killed somebody,'" she said. "My conclusion was that it was a hit and run, or he hit someone with a bike. Nothing like a murder."

Suarez said she was shocked to find out about his arrest early Thursday, but another of the suspect's sisters, Norma Hernandez, said at least some relatives had heard something far more horrifying about what he had done.

In the 1980s, she said, Pedro had confessed to a church prayer group that he had killed a boy. Norma Hernandez said she didn't have firsthand knowledge of this confession, and didn't learn about it until later. If she had known, she said, she would have turned her brother in.

"Even if it is my own child I will go to the police station and say, 'You'd better check them out,'" she said. "I'd consider the mother and her child and her wondering what happened to her child."

The people who heard him confess "should've said something even if it wasn't true," she said.

A defense lawyer told a judge Friday that Hernandez suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and had a history of hallucinations. Suarez said she knew her brother had been taking psychiatric medications, but said she didn't think he had been debilitated by mental illness, and wasn't aware that he had been hallucinating. She also said she had never thought him to be capable of murder.

"My brother was not a monster like that. I don't know him like that," she said. Suarez said she was still holding out hope that her brother's confession might be false, prompted by a delusion, fueled by the media attention to the case.

"If he did do it, God will have justice," she said. Suarez said she would continue to pray for Etan's parents, Stanley and Julie Patz. "I would like to have a chance to meet them and apologize to them, whether my brother is guilty, or not."

Well-wishers left flowers, candles and dolls Saturday outside the New York City building that once housed the bodega where police said Etan died.

Etan's parents, who still live two blocks from the spot where he vanished, had a note on their door Saturday saying they weren't commenting about the case.

A former neighbor who knew Pedro Hernandez as a teenager says he was someone you wouldn't want to cross - a reserved but "pent-up" young man. But the pastor of his church says Hernandez, now 51, is simply a shy and timid man who faithfully attends Sunday services.

Now on suicide watch at Bellevue Hospital, Hernandez was arraigned Friday via video link from a hospital ward on a charge of murder. His court-appointed lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, told the judge that Hernandez is bipolar, schizophrenic and has a "history of hallucinations, both visual and auditory."

Hernandez, who was a teenage convenience store clerk at the time Etan went missing, now lives in Maple Shade, N.J. He was arrested Thursday after making a surprise confession in a case that has bedeviled investigators for 33 years. Hernandez told police he lured Etan into the basement of a convenience store with a promise of a soda, choked him to death, then stuffed his body in a bag and left it with trash on the street a block away.

The legal proceeding lasted only about four minutes. Expressionless, wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, Hernandez didn't speak or enter a plea.

A judge ordered Hernandez held without bail and authorized a psychological examination to see if he is fit to stand trial.

The prosecutor who appeared in court, Assistant District Attorney Armand Durastanti, said it was 33 years ago Friday that 6-year-old Etan Patz left his home on Prince Street to catch his school bus. "He has not been seen or heard from since. It's been 33 years, and justice has not been done in this case," Durastanti, said.

Etan disappeared on May 25, 1979, on his two-block walk to his bus stop in Manhattan. It was the first time his parents had let him walk the route by himself.

Next to the bus stop was a convenience store, where Hernandez, then 18, worked as a clerk. Police interviewed him this week, acting on a tip.

Etan's remains were never found, even after a massive search and a media campaign that made parents afraid to let their children out of their sight and sparked a movement to publicize the cases of missing youngsters. Etan was one of the first missing children to be pictured on a milk carton.

Hernandez's confession put investigators in the unusual position of bringing the case to court before they had amassed any physical evidence or had time to fully corroborate his story or investigate his psychiatric condition.

Police spokesman Paul Browne said investigators were retracing garbage truck routes from the late 1970s and deciding whether to search landfills for the boy's remains, a daunting prospect.

Crime scene investigators also arrived Friday morning at the building in Manhattan's SoHo section that once held the bodega where Hernandez worked. Authorities were considering excavating the basement for evidence.

They also were looking into whether Hernandez has a history of mental illness or pedophilia.

Browne said letting Hernandez remain free until the investigation is complete was not an option: "There was no way we could release the man who had just confessed to killing Etan Patz."

Legal experts said that even though police have a confession in hand, they are likely to work hard to make certain Hernandez isn't delusional or simply making up the story.

"There's always a concern whether or not someone is falsely confessing," said former prosecutor Paul DerOhannesian.

As Fishbein arrived at the courthouse, he asked reporters to be respectful of some of Hernandez's relatives there, including his wife and daughter.

"It's a tough day. The family is very upset. Please give them some space," Fishbein said.

Etan's father, Stanley Patz, avoided journalists gathered outside the family's Manhattan apartment, the same one the family was living in when his son vanished.

Former SoHo resident Roberto Monticello, a filmmaker who was a teenager when Patz disappeared, said he remembers Hernandez as civil but reserved and "pent-up."

"You always got the sense that if you crossed him really bad, he would hurt you," Monticello said, although he added that he never saw him hit anyone.

Monticello said Hernandez was also one of the few teenagers in the neighborhood who didn't join in the all-out search for Etan, which consumed SoHo and the city for months. "He was always around, but he never helped. He never participated," Monticello said.

Hernandez, who moved to New Jersey shortly after Etan's disappearance, suffered a back injury that has kept him on disability for years, according to police.

The Rev. George Bowen Jr., pastor at Hernandez's church in Moorestown, N.J., said he attended services regularly.

"I would judge him to be shy and maybe timid. He never got involved in anything," Bowen said.

He said Hernandez's wife, Rosemary, and daughter, Becky, a college student, went to see him Thursday morning after he was taken into police custody.

"They were just crying their eyes out," Bowen said. "They were broken up. They were wrecked. It was horrible. They didn't know what they were going to do."

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Hernandez gave a detailed confession that led police to believe they had the right man. He also said Hernandez told a relative and others as far back as 1981 that he had "done something bad" and killed a child in New York.

Associated Press reporters Julie Walker in New York, Patrick Walters in Moorestown, N.J., and Michael Virtanen in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.

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